It’s the first day of my surgery rotation, third year of medical school. I have no idea what I’m supposed to be doing, so I focus on the easy stuff: looking pretty and being on time. Boosting my first impression seems important since I cannot remember where the electrolytes belong on those stick figure scaffolds or any of the branches off of the mesenteric artery. Only a few weeks prior, I became Dr. Stockton, defending my PhD dissertation in front of my parents, an entire Immunology department, devoted friends who will endure 79 slides about a cell surface molecule, and a (recently ex-) boyfriend. I was A Smart Girl, searchable on PubMed, and could talk to the field experts without hair flipping or reproach. But there were two years of clinical rotations to complete before gradation; and after a four-year hiatus of mouse murdering and futile, ring-less dating, I was rusty.
I set the alarm for 4:30am, blew out my hair, and channeled my best Bond Girl Goes to Medical School. One could reasonably assume that this getup was enduring an extended tour from an evening of bad decisions, but that didn’t occur to mid-twenties me. I looked good. Also, I needed the confidence of little dress/tall boots to endure impossible questions–a sort of medical hazing known as “pimping”– from a group of doctors who had only ever been described to me as assholes. Surgeons have a reputation (especially among the nerdy, PhD set) for being jerks: over-confident-frat-boy-cowboy-old-school-chauvinistic jerks. I had been warned, and I’ll admit to the disappointed sighs of my feminist sisters that I dressed to appeal to that demographic. It was still dark when I located the right floor and found a sleepy intern to tell me what to do. An hour later, I had collected the overnight vital signs of every patient on the service.
The Chief Resident arrived at 6am with a few other blue-pajammied underlings in tow. They were a sniggering bunch of inside joke-swappers; their swagger intimidated and annoyed me. Blech. I’d never catch up with these gunner medical students who could spew correct answers like the names of their own children. I had forgotten everything I’d learned five years ago in Gross Anatomy, and I had no desire to memorize minutia to impress physicians in a specialty I certainly never intended to join. Clutching my notecards with their teeny documentation of temperatures and urine outputs, I braced myself for the upcoming twelve weeks of sleep-deprived grunt work and public mockery.
The third year resident appeared to be in charge of rounds, and led the gaggle of us into each dark room to awaken the post-surgical patients, barking orders at the intern for dressing changes, scans, labs, or discharge plans. Occasionally he’d regard the medical students with distracted disdain, and assign us mundane tasks with subtle assurances that somehow we’d fuck it up. The Chief filed in behind us in his unstained white coat, paying more attention to his coffee than the plans for the day. He spoke quietly and infrequently, but his offhand remarks elicited smirks from the residents within earshot. I didn’t actually hear him speak until it was my turn to present a patient.
He didn’t interrupt me right away. I thought I was doing a bang up job, yammering away about temperature spikes and heart rates and drain outputs just like the students before me had done outside their patients’ doors. But he stopped me mid-sentence…
“Stand up straight when you’re presenting a patient to me.”
I was leaning against the wall. I was also desperately trying to finish my little speech about the overnight events of a patient I had never met so I could disappear again from their notice and questions. But Big Shot Jerk Face made me re-start my presentation from the beginning to the smug delight and grateful relief of my fellow classmates. Stupid, stupid, stupid girl, I thought. I had committed a grave error in sartorial judgment. Pants-with-clogs ponytail girl got through her morning report with absolutely no hassle at all.
Later that day, Big Shot Jerk Face sat down across from me in the cafeteria. The other medical students had already raced off to compete for space at the carotid artery aneurysm repair, but Big Shot Jerk Face implied that there was no rush and started being nice to me, explaining his reaction to my wall-leaning insolence was a common prank on Day 1 of a rotation. I was relieved that such a blatant example of asshole-ry was only a joke, less happy to be the butt of it. Big Shot insisted I follow him into the next case, and then his next one, where I began to notice that the attending surgeon was letting Big Shot do all of the sewing, and the nurses were happy to see him (if not blatantly flirting with him). Suddenly, surgery seemed interesting.